Spring skiing, Japanese-style
The Japanese ski resort of Niseko is famous for the quality and consistency of its light, powdery snow. (Aaron Jamieson/Niseko Photography)
This winter may have been somewhat of a bust in much of the United States, logging the warmest temperatures since 1999, but skiers and snowboarders on the other side of the Pacific are not complaining about snow drought.
Even in late March, the Japanese ski resort of Niseko is still getting plenty of fresh powder. An astounding 20m has fallen thus far and snow depth reached a peak of more than four metres.
The abundant snowfall bodes very well for spring skiing in Niseko, the catch-all name for four linked resorts on the 1,308m Mount Niseko Annupuri, some 100km southwest of Sapporo, on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island. Niseko has one of the longest seasons in Japan, with most of the runs staying open until early May.
Niseko became famous about a decade ago, especially in Australia, for the quality and consistency of its light, powdery snow, the result of Siberian winds interacting with moisture from the Sea of Japan. An influx of Aussie skiers and snowboarders and both local and foreign property developers transformed the centre of Hirafu from a sleepy village into an international resort town, with new accommodations and excellent dining options. Though visitors are slowly returning to Japan, deterred in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the resort town has been virtually crowd free this winter, with no chairlifts lines.
On Mount Niseko, chairlifts and gondolas whisk skiers and boarders to within striking distance of the peak. Then, it is a 20-minute hike to glide down off-piste slopes that link up with groomed trails or roads near the mountain’s more remote areas. For those who want to try backcountry skiing for the first time, the Strawberry Fields forest run in the Hanazono resort provides thigh-high powder that is within easy reach of chairlifts and groomed trails. The three other areas at Niseko – Annupuri, Niseko Village and Grand Hirafu – also have a good mix of beginner, intermediate and expert trails, with a total of 48km of groomed runs. Grand Hirafu, which has the most night skiing on Niseko, features a number of ungroomed powdery trails such as Miharashi, an expert run that winds into Holiday, a wooded intermediate trail that is one of the mountain's longer runs at 2.8km.
Some serious backcountry skiers and snowboarders, however, leave Niseko altogether for powder trips. Earlier in March, powderhounds could be seen climbing five hours up and then carving giant S's back down Mount Yotei's alabaster flanks, a volcano 13km southeast of Mount Niseko Annupuri.
Apres-ski in Niseko is often just as fun as zipping through the flakes and is best enjoyed with a rental car to let you take full advantage of the area's muscle-tenderizing onsen (hot springs). The Niseko Yu Meguri pass (1,400 yen) gives you free access to any three of the participating baths in the area. If you are feeling adventurous, take the two-hour drive to Niimi Onsen, located on a remote mountain road, for a quiet, lantern-lit outdoor bath often cocooned in winter by an overhanging snowbank.
Back in Hirafu, the unwinding continues at Ezo Seafoods, which serves up succulent snow crab legs, sweet Akkeshi oysters from the coastal region of eastern Hokkaido and a variety of fresh sashimi. Wash it all down with mulled wine or single-malt Hokkaido whisky at nearby Gyu+, a wooden, cottage-like bar accessed through an old fridge door that is nearly invisible in the snow drifts.
When you are ready for a break from the Aussie ski set, the fishing port of Otaru on Ishikari Bay to the north seems worlds away. With a picturesque canal, glassworks studios set in vintage slate buildings and the entire street of Sushiya-dori devoted to sushi shops, it is well worth the 70-minute drive from Hirafu. A two-hour drive south from Hirafu will get you to volcano-rimmed Lake Shikotsu, the second-deepest lake in Japan, renowned for the clarity of its frigid waters. Set in a national park and blissfully undeveloped, Shikotsu has extremely panoramic onsen, including Marukoma and Ito, with outdoor baths overlooking the ancient caldera. It is the perfect way to boil the ache out of your muscles before a long flight home.
From Narita Airport or Haneda airport outside of Tokyo, flights run to Shin-Chitose Airport outside of Sapporo, where buses take two and a half hours to reach Hirafu. Skybus runs regular services through the end of March, after which private shuttles are the best choice if you are not renting a car from the agencies at Shin-Chitose.